Keener that I was, I would always get to my Twentieth-Century American Literature class early. In the hallway outside of the lecture room, I’d occupy myself by reading the often boring announcements posted on a bulletin board. One day, several glossy flyers were pinned to the board for the taking, one of them spread fully open, showcasing course offerings for the University of Toronto’s Summer Abroad program. I snatched one down from the board, and still have it to this day.
A flight to a mysterious country – all of them were mysterious to me, at 22, I hadn’t been anywhere outside of North America – was something I never thought I’d have access to, but this Summer Abroad flyer was my ticket. Peeling it open, I luxuriated in imagining myself “studying” in each of the programs. Getting my hands dirty learning archeology field methods in the desert of Huaca Colorada, Peru. Summering in Tuscany, the birthplace of the Italian language, learning important phrases like: Sì, mi piacerebbe un po ‘di vino. But as an English major, practicality made me gravitate towards the program’s lone English credit: a British literature course in Oxford, England.
I tucked the flyer into my notebook as the professor arrived, but during the class my mind was wandering. Partway through the term, we’d already plunged headlong into The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, tumbled through Willa Cather’s portrait of A Lost Lady in a small Western town in the 1920s, and been introduced to the Harlem Renaissance by the forceful voices of Toni Morrison and Nella Larsen’s haunting characters. Now, American expatriates like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were bringing us to Paris in the 1920s, and I wanted to go there too. England wasn’t calling me anymore.
After devouring our next assignment, Hemingway’s Paris-based memoir A Moveable Feast, in a single, gluttonous sitting, it was decided: I would be going to Paris. Well, not exactly. I would be going to Tours, a medieval city in central France where the Summer Abroad program was offering French courses. Or, as I saw it, a place that was only a short train ride away from Paris. Practicality be damned.
A HIGHER EDUCATION
But practicality is a huge element of study-abroad programs. The cost for two university courses, a round-trip flight, accommodations for a lengthy stay, though not cheap, was surprisingly affordable. Had I planned to go to France (or anywhere) without the added goal of earning a few university credits, it probably would have cost just as much – but, quite frankly, I would have had a harder time justifying it in the midst of my degree.
Record numbers of students are embarking on study-abroad programs around the world. In 2012 the International Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that the number of international students worldwide rose from 800,000 in 1975 to 3.7 million by 2009. And Unesco’s Institute for Statistics reports that the number of students studying abroad will continue to increase by 12 percent each year. In the past 13 years, more than 1,200 students have participated in the University of Toronto Summer Program in Tours, France, that I signed up for.
A considerable percentage of our younger generation is making their first flight, or their first flight alone, as students. I had flown before with my family, doddling mindlessly behind my parents through check-in and security – probably causing them much grief. But Flight AF353 from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport was different. This flight ushered me into a higher form of education and, since then, flying and learning have been inextricably tied.
On the flight to Paris, I pored over Hemingway’s book again, marking the places I intended to visited, the experiences I intended to have. While he launched into a passionate defense of one of France’s greatest pastimes, explaining: “Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it as natural as eating and to me as necessary…” the meal-service cart came round, the flight attendant offering me a warm baguette and a tiny bottle of red wine. If this was a lesson in French culture, I liked learning it.
In class at the Institut d’études françaises de Touraine, I worked on my French. The courses were divided into two sections: a labo where we all wore headphones and recited French passages into a microphone, and classroom-based lessons and discussions. The labos terrified me. Periodically, while reciting a script I was barely at the point of comprehending, Madame Mariage would tap in and silently listen. Suddenly, her voice would speak spiritedly through my headphones: “Non! Répétez!” At one point, we had to spell our names out, letter by letter, in front of the other students. “Kah,” I started. “Non!” Was I mispronouncing the “K”? Turns out, Madame Mariage was convinced I should be spelling my name with a “C.”
In the classroom, Monsieur Bollo taught me the most indispensable French phrase I’ve ever learned: “Comment on dit…?” or “How do you say…[blank]?” He probably got sick of hearing me say it, but for me it was a password, a ticket – a phrase that would help me unlock more words, to use in more places, to keep learning. I would spend every weekend in Paris, testing it out. How did I like Paris? “Comment on dit ‘ineffable,’ en français?”
I was one of four Canadians in my classroom of about 15. There was an American woman, two men from Qatar, a woman from Switzerland, and other fellow students who contributed to making French lessons an international affair. One of the more humbling lessons I learned in this classroom was how readily I took English for granted. Everyone in the classroom spoke it, despite it being the second language for most of them. I thought I was so worldly, going to France to learn a second language, but really, I had a lot more to learn.
Heading home, I opened Hemingway’s book once more, each word now weighted with all the new meaning I brought to it, one passage especially: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man [or woman!], then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”